So you grew up in both Mexico City and New York. I’d love to hear about how those two cities influenced your worldview.
Absolutely. Going back a little bit, my parents are Brazilian. They moved to New York briefly in the mid 80s, and right before they left to go back to Latin America, I was born. Three weeks later they moved to Ecuador for 2 years and Mexico City for 9 years. So I was 11 by the time we left Mexico City and we came back to New York. We lived in a suburb right outside the city, a 25-minute drive from Manhattan.
Mexico, it was one of those things, when you are young you can’t appreciate it, but looking back, it was so important for me to have that time. Mexican culture, it is a beautiful country and culture and people, they are very proud. It was great to have that exposure to the culture at such a young age.
Almost as important is that I went to an international school. So the norm for me was being around so many different kinds of people, and interacting with friends from Canada to different parts of Asia to Mexico.
Ironically enough, when we moved to New York, we moved to this town called Bronxville, NY. It was a beautiful square mile suburban town, but it was so monocultural. Everyone pretty much was white and most had been there since kindergarten, and I was this weird, odd ball, sort-of-Mexican creature.
Not to mention that I moved in sixth grade and everybody is a nightmare in middle school anyway.
Oh God. [both laugh]
Such a weird intense culture shock and adjustment, but in terms of growing up and shaping me, I think it was valuable because if you are used to being the odd man out, you can always find ways to relate to people. It was great to have those two really different experiences; I think they have really served me well in being able to appreciate people no matter what their background is. At the end of the day we have something to relate with everyone, and I lived that from going to the giant metropolis that is Mexico City to this tiny little town.
Golly, I can’t even imagine.
There was also a culture shock in the home. Everybody else’s parents were American, and there was this American way of doing things. And my parents were Brazilian, and I was growing up in this American society, doing American things, playing American sports, and it was an interesting culture clash at home that nobody else could really relate to, because nobody else had Brazilian parents or had that kind of upbringing. It was an interesting struggle to have early on, but it helped to shape the person that I became.
I can’t imagine that transition. I moved around the same time in my life actually, from farmland Indiana to Atlanta. Definitely not as huge of a culture shock, but I remember being like, “Whaaat?” [both laugh]
So, you have traveled a lot and been to many different countries. Could you tell me about some of your favorite travel memories?
I’ve been really lucky to travel at different phases of my life, and they all feel a bit different. Some of the most rewarding travel has been through work while I was at Visionspring. For 2 years, I traveled back and forth to El Salvador, each month I was there for 2 weeks. It was very intensive. I go to know El Salvador in a different way; I got to know the people really closely. Because most of the time when you travel, you get a little taste and then you move on, but it was really nice to go a bit deeper there.
Two of the last couple of trips I did for Visionspring were to Mexico. And it is so weird to go to a place that you spent your childhood. I was going to the same place, but with such a different lens almost 20 years later. That was a weird circle of life moment.
How did you get into this social good world? What were you up to while working at Visionspring?
I was definitely heavily influenced by my international background when choosing what I wanted to study in school. I went to George Washington in DC, and I was drawn to the problem solving nature of international development. I wanted to reconnect and figure out how we could solve fundamental issues in the developing world. But also being in DC, I saw the government red tape, the World Bank, big company side of it too. And I saw it totally didn’t fit my personality. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something felt very suffocating about it for me. I couldn’t imagine being in a tiny cog in the wheel. I wanted to get on the ground and get a lot of exposure and throw myself into it, and I knew I couldn’t do that at a big company.
I always had a love affair with New York, so I moved back and started working at a project advisory, boutique firm that actually focused on projects primarily in Nigeria. There is so much potential in that country – it is the biggest economy in Africa, and the biggest population, so it is unbelievable the opportunity there. We were advising a lot of companies there. Working there was great and I got a lot of exposure, but I wanted to be on the ground and touch and feel things and solve these basic problems that I knew were lacking that I saw growing up firsthand.
The idea of social enterprise wasn’t in my vocabulary. I came across Acumen Fund, which is an awesome organization, which made me come across Visionspring, which I thought made a lot of sense. I happened to see that Visionspring had an opening at the time, so I hustled like crazy to get in there. It was a partnerships coordinator for Latin America, and it was perfect, a great fit for my background.
Glasses are not readily available at the base of the pyramid in the developing world. So you have people who age and lose the ability to see up close. It is so common for people past of the age of 35 or 40 – in their peak working years – to lose the ability to work simply because they don’t have access to this vital tools that only costs a couple of dollars. VisionSpring trains local entrepreneurs to be able to use very simple eye screening to sell the glasses themselves in these communities. So they are doing the outreach and earning revenue while providing a vital health product. I loved the entrepreneurial aspect of it, and I loved that it was an idea based on common sense. So I jumped on it.
Awesome. And now you are starting a fashion line! So tell me about that.
Yeah, logical next step right?
Yeah. How did you go from social entrepreneur enthusiast to fashion guru?
Great question. Definitely not the career path I would have imagined for myself, but like I said what attracted me to social entrepreneurship and Visionspring was the entrepreneurial piece in it, the problem-solving piece. In terms of the day-to-day brain stimulation, it was “OK, we are solving this real problem, and this is the strategy behind it.” That was really exciting to me. I always read entrepreneurial books, so that was percolating in the back of my mind, but I never actually thought I would start my own company. But after being at Visionspring for about 3 years I got unexpectedly laid off.
They said, “We’ve had a change in strategy.” It wasn’t anything I had done, but that they were going in a different direction. So that was a major blow, I was devastated. But at the same time, I always had this weird itch, but never thought it would actually get scratched. I had been a lifelong complainer about shopping — I’m 4’9” so nothing ever fit me. And when you look into the numbers, you know that there is a huge market opportunity there. Not even looking internationally, but in the US alone, half of the female population is petite. So from an entrepreneurial perspective, this is the perfect problem to solve. There is a huge market; no one is doing it right, and its very personal to me. I’m not really crazy about fashion, I wouldn’t say that is my primary passion in life, but the fact that no one was solving what I thought was a very obvious problem was just fascinating to me.
So I decided that same day that I got laid off, in a tearful dinner with my husband, you know what, I have to look at this as an opportunity. Because I would have never had the push to do it on my own. I really loved my job, and that was my career. I was doing exactly what my ambitious college self wanted me to do. I was traveling all over and doing these amazing things, but life throws you a curveball sometimes, so I told myself, “I have to see this as an opportunity, otherwise it would eat at me forever.” And I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try. So I decided to take the plunge and see if I could figure it out.
You go girl. That’s amazing. So tell me about Carolina Alvo, your line, your Kickstarter, everything.
It has been a fun journey. At first I thought, maybe I could solve this problem by building a platform that would bring together other designers for petites. So I didn’t know where to start, but fortunately being in New York, there was a trade show at a massive convention center. It was a list of 2000 vendors, so for literally weeks I looked at every single one’s website. And I had a specific design aesthetic in mind, so I felt like if they fit that, I would just go talk to them. I narrowed that list down to 40 or 50 and I just pitched to them. I asked them “Do you design for petites?”, “do your clothes fit small or loose?”. After talking to them, I got the list down to 6 to 10 companies that I could work with.
I found some true petite models and I created the first version of the website and launched it by April 2013, so in about 3-4 months.
Yeah. So I’m so happy I did that because I learned a lot. It confirmed what I already knew, which is that the supply for petite clothing is very small, so I was just finding the exceptions to the rule. I would get feedback from customers asking, “Do you have basic black blazer, or a little black dress?” So those first few months of testing I got really great feedback, but it confirmed that I needed to go in the original direction towards making my own stuff.
In the garment district in New York, there are companies that help people launch their line. They bring in people with the technical expertise. So literally I would go in with my vision, and they would be able to draw it out, and we would bring in a petite fit model, and by May 2014 we had these samples for these 5 basic pieces. I re-launched the website and started to get feedback. So it got to the point that I had to start fundraising for this, I couldn’t be bootstrapping it on my own anymore.
I got the feedback from people suggesting that I should do a Kickstarter. I came up with every excuse why I shouldn’t do one, but it boiled down to me being really scared to go on Kickstarter, because it is just so public. The great thing and the worst thing about it is that it is so public, you put your baby out there and God forbid it doesn’t go well. That was just a personal thing that I had to overcome. For me, what ultimately sold me is that it is a great way to test your product. Kickstarter is an amazing way to A) validate that you are on the right track and B) to get the word out. So ultimately, I decided that me being nervous about it is a pretty stupid reason not to do it. [both laugh] So here we are.
Awesome. And it ends on August 28?
The video is really hilarious and relatable and great. I think you did an awesome job.
We had fun making it. It’s all stuff that actually happens so its easy to tell the story.
Last question: do you have any advice for women who are considering branching out and starting their own business or solo project?
Oh God, yeah. The paralysis of fear is something that I’ve had to work on myself. And I think that most people, if they are honest, that is what holds them back from opportunities. Like I said, I am an obsessive reader of entrepreneurship books, and I know that anyone who is worth reading about had that fear as well, but it’s just what they did with that fear that separates them from most people. So ultimately you just have to accept that the fear, that hesitation, is totally normal. You’re going to doubt yourself pretty much everyday and you just have to do it anyway. It isn’t just about starting your own business, either, but in all aspects in life.
Yeah, but anything new.
Yeah. I try to focus on that: even on the really painful days when it feels like nothing is working, I remind myself that if I didn’t do this, wouldn’t that feeling be so much worse than this? And I think, yeah it would. What if someone started a really cool petite business and I had instead gone and gotten another job, I would have been so mad at myself. You never know how things in life are going to work out, but at least what gives me peace is that I have that. At least I can tell my future kids that I did this crazy thing. [both laugh]. Focusing on those two things gets you over that hump. Once you’re over the hump, you can do some pretty cool things.
Do you have any other things you’d like to share? Any other ideas?
Yeah, I mean Sheryl Sandberg brought the conversation to the main stage, but there is a difference between being a woman in business and being a man in business. And I don’t think that that should dominate the consciousness of a woman everyday, but people… for instance I gave an interview the other day for this publication, and during the conversation the male interviewer said, “Oh my god, I love short women.” We were talking over the phone. He said, “If you were next to me, I would totally hit on you. My first wife was petite.”
Oh my god.
Yeah. I thought, if I were a man, this guy would never say anything this inappropriate. And I don’t think he did it maliciously, but you hear things like that all the time, and you just have to be aware that sexism – subtle or not – definitely still exists. We have come a long way in certain things, but that was really interesting to me. It was an eye opening moment.
There is such a difference in confidence as well. Everything I read, I totally see it playing out. My husband is an entrepreneur too, and certain things just come so naturally to him. It’s frustrating to watch. He’ll have his bad days too, but I think there is a fundamental difference between a man and a woman, and if anything, that inspires me and gives me more fuel. There’s just got to be more examples of women changing the gender norm and pushing back in those moments. I chose to ignore that guy, but afterwards I thought maybe I should have pushed back a little bit by telling him, “Hey, I know you didn’t mean that maliciously, but you would never say that if I were a guy. So let’s just keep it professional.” Whatever the right answer would be in a respectful tone. That gives me a whole other thing to be inspired about. I think the more women that are involved, the better. I hope that by the time the next generation comes that there is no need for the ‘female entrepreneur feature’ because you’re just entrepreneurs, and that’s it. But right now, its like “Oh you’re a female entrepreneur, that’s a story.”